Saturday, July 27, 2013

Day 225: R.I.P.D.

"You're gonna have my ass? Don't be such a cliche."

In a summer filled with high concept, big budget fare, R.I.P.D. somehow managed to fly almost completely under the radar. The advertising campaign for the film was admittedly lousy (I think I only saw a trailer for this film once in all my trips to the movies) and they seemed to be trying to sell it as Men in Black-lite. While the film certainly takes great, often unnecessary, strides to differentiate itself from that franchise, R.I.P.D. is a much better film than I would have given it credit for based on the advertisements.

Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is a good cop who did a bad thing. He stole some gold pieces from a crime scene, along with his partner Hayes (Kevin Bacon). En route to a major drug bust, Nick has a change of heart and tells Hayes he's going to turn in the gold to evidence, and at the bust, Hayes guns Nick down in cold blood. In what is, visually, the coolest sequence in the film, Nick walks through the crime scene, frozen in time, and then floats up to the sky. He is intercepted from the white light, however, and brought to what appears to be a police holding room. Here he is given an offer by Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker) that he can either take his chances with his impending judgment, or help boost his afterlife stock a bit by serving as a cop of sorts, hunting down "deados," or people who've escaped judgment and are hiding out on Earth.

When told that his beat will be Boston, the city where he lived, Nick decides to take the offer, in hopes of setting things right from beyond. He is then partnered with Roy (Jeff Bridges) a salty old west sheriff, who reluctantly agrees to show Nick the ropes. Nick sets out to make things right with his still living wife (Stephanie Szostak) and protect her from Hayes, who seems to be on a quest to find Nick's gold. As Roy & Nick dig deeper, they uncover a vast conspiracy that may lead the dead to try and take over Earth.

When they go back to Earth, they're given avatars to disguise what they're really there to do. In a bit that's both inspired, and somehow underused, Nick's avatar is an old Chinese man (James Hong) and Roy's is a hot blond (Marisa Miller). Whenever they brandish their guns, still living people see them as holding a banana or a hair dryer respectively. It's a brilliant sight gag, and one that's not exploited to death, which was a real surprise. The film does suffer from far too many hackneyed plot devices and tropes of the genre (for example, if I have to sit through one more "the bad guy gets himself captured on purpose" plot point, I'm going to vomit). But it does have enough originality to keep things moving for just over ninety minutes, which means it doesn't have time to overstay its welcome. 

The biggest issue with the film, however, were the visual effects. The film just looked cheap. There were some bits that looked okay, but overall, the effects never rose to a level of even mediocre believability. The budget for the film is listed at $130 million dollars, but I can't see any of that up on screen. Director Robert Schwentke, known for his similarly middle of the road fare like Flightplan & Red, adds some nice visual flourishes to the film, but whenever a human would turn into a "deado," the rendering of those characters was truly bad. 

The biggest asset the film has, by a mile, is Jeff Bridges. Playing a more overtly comedic version of his Rooster Cogburn from 2010's True Grit, Bridges appears to be the only actor with a sense of how much fun the movie around him could have been. He goes for broke here, and it pays off handsomely as he almost single-handedly carries the film. Reynolds has a detachment here that has almost become his stock in trade, and it makes his character that much weaker as a result. Instead of being the audience's in to this strange world, he seems equal parts oblivious and incredulous, and never allows himself to give in to the film the way Bridges does. 

Bacon is another actor that seems to just be cashing a paycheck as of late. He's perfectly serviceable as the film's antagonist, but he just doesn't seem to give a shit about anything, and it really shows. Parker manages to add some levity to her character and makes her a bit more than a cliched police chief, which is what the role was very clearly designed to be. I was sad though when her bit with Steely Dan music playing in the holding room at the beginning of the film went nowhere. It could have been a great running gag for her, but the filmmakers seem to have lost interest. 

If this were a world where Men in Black didn't exist, more people would probably have gone to see R.I.P.D. and it might have made more of a dent at the box office. I honestly think it's as good a film as the first MIB film, and could only have benefitted from better second and third lead actors and better visual effects. I wouldn't run right out and see R.I.P.D. but if it's on cable some time, or you can see it at the dollar theater, it's a solid time waster and will provide you with more than a handful of chuckles. Saddest of all, that's honestly more than I can say about virtually any other film that's in wide release at the moment. 

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day 224: Only God Forgives


"Time to meet the devil."

In certain, geeky circles, the summer of 2013 was all about one film, Only God Forgives. The re-teaming of director Nicolas Winding Refn with his Drive star Ryan Gosling promised to be the film snob's event film of the summer. But a curious thing happened back in May at The Cannes Film Festival, where Refn had won the Best Director prize in 2011 for the aforementioned Drive; the film was booed after it's screening. The word on the street was that the film was a disaster. But part of me held out hope that the film wasn't as bad as the hype. After all, Cannes was the same place where Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was greeted with boos in 1976. So is Only God Forgives the second coming of Taxi Driver, or a rightly derided calamity all its own? Read on to find out...


First of all, it's my own fault for thinking that Only God Forgives could ever be as good as Drive, let alone another Taxi Driver. The film is an unmitigated failure, saved only by the fact that it fails in such spectacular fashion, you can't help but admire a director willing to fiddle away while everything around him goes up in flames. This is not some coldly detached work of a filmmaker trying to make the best of an awful script. This is the work of a man who's willing to push every last button he has access to in hopes that if you're not entertained, then at least you have a solidly concrete reason why you hate the film.

Opening in sweat drenched neon red, Only God Forgives tells the story of Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American living and working abroad with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) at a Thai boxing club. When Billy decides one night that he wants to have sex with a 14 year old girl, but settles instead for raping & murdering a 16 year old, he is in turn murdered by the victim's father. A police detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who has an equal penchant for justice and karaoke, determines that the proper punishment for the victim's father is to lose his right arm.

Not satisfied with this brand of justice, Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok, the prototypical ugly American, to dispense her own justice. Crystal sets about belittling Julian for not sympathizing with his dead brother, despite the terrible thing he did, and when it becomes clear that he will not participate in her revenge plot, she calculates her own. It's not quite as simple as she thinks, however, since Chang almost seems to be superhuman in his ability to dodge death at every turn, and he, Crystal and Julian are all set on a collision course with destiny.


As a director, Refn has always had an eye for composition, framing his shots in a way that is, at times, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. With this film, however, he transcends into full-on mimicry. Several shots are lifted wholesale from A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, 2001, and most notably and often, The Shining. He dedicates the film, as he did with Drive, to Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is most assuredly a kindred spirit, but this film is pure Kubrick-lite. Even the soundtrack, with its pulsing, whirring bass lines, can't help but feel derivative of Kubrick's synthesized scores. It's also present in the way he uses lighting, most particularly neon lighting, to reveal characters in otherwise total blackness.

More than anything else, the film feels wholly unessential. It feels like a short film premise dragged agonizingly to feature length. It clocks in just shy of ninety minutes, but it feels like an absolute eternity at times, particularly when the film has a dearth of dialogue to propel the scenes forward. He's done that before, most notably his 2010 film Valhalla Rising, a miniature masterpiece done almost solely with visuals, so of course this film can't even help but feel derivative of his earlier work as well as the work of others. It's sad to say, but you very quickly become desensitized to the violence as well, because it seems designed solely to titillate rather than shock as it did in his aforementioned films, as well as his fantastic 2008 film Bronson.

All of that being said, I have to at least admire Refn for being so committed to his work. While the film does feel inferential and wholly unnecessary, it's at least going for something. You can't accuse Refn of not being devoted to the film, no matter how overwrought and vile it is at times. His stamp is all over the film and he has a dedication to the material that's not present with many other filmmakers. The film is very reminiscent of the work of Gaspar Noe (Irreversible, Enter the Void) in that it is wholly repulsive and unsettling, but nonetheless radiates with the heart of someone that truly loves what they're doing.


It's almost foolish to try and critique the performances in the film. Kristin Scott Thomas has the only thing even approaching a three-dimensional character, and it's only because of a scene late in the third act, when she finally shows her true nature, that her character becomes more than a one-note caricature. Gosling is once again coasting on his ridiculous wannabe Steve McQueen stoicism, and it's worn so thin by his first three scenes that you'll want to throttle some life into him around the thirty minute mark. He has one moment where he explodes with rage, but it's so melodramatic and ridiculous that you can't help but wonder why he even went for it in the first place.

I was expecting to discover that Pansringarm is an accomplished actor with tons of credits in his native Thailand to his name, but this is only his 8th role in a feature film. He's not necessarily bad, but his character is borderline impossible to feel any empathy towards, even though he seems to be the only one with a true moral compass (despite an attempt by Refn to inject Julian with one late in the film). Much like Kubrick, Refn uses his actors as set dressing, and doesn't expect much more of them than to hit their mark to create the picture he's trying to paint.


I can't honestly say that Only God Forgives is a film only for Refn fans or completists, because I don't even think it's worth the time of people who would label themselves as such. It's a dirty, disgusting, repulsive little film that will be forgotten quickly. It has little artistic value and can't even be admired for its few moments of true visual flair. For almost the entire film, I couldn't decide if the things happening on screen were supposed to be real or a dream, since clues like costumes or character appearances were all over the map. More than anything else, I just don't even care enough to find out, and that's the saddest indictment of all against the film.

GO Rating: 1.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Top 5: Least Deserving Box Office Flops


This summer, more than any other I can think of, seems to bring about a new film every weekend that everyone lines up to call a flop or a bomb. While some of them (R.I.P.D.) seemed destined for it, there have been a few that didn't deserve to become flops (Pacific Rim, anyone?) Over the years there have been lots of films that flopped at the box office but went on to achieve great success on home video or endless cable reruns, almost to the point where it's hard to imagine that they were ever so unsuccessful in their theatrical runs. Today I'll be looking at five of my favorite films that bombed at the box office, at least three of which have attained legendary status, although I'll never stop holding out hope for the other two...

5. Big Trouble (2002, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)


Production Budget: $40 million
Worldwide Box Office: $8 million 

Big Trouble was so far down before it's embarrassingly limited theatrical release, there was no chance it was ever going to get back up again. Unfortunately, people only now seem to remember the film for being postponed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. While the film's third act does involve (staggeringly inept) criminals trying to smuggle a nuclear warhead onto a plane, it is also one of the best crafted and funniest ensemble comedies of the last decade. Based on a book by Dave Barry, and directed by the man behind Men in Black & Get ShortyBig Trouble features one of the best casts ever assembled for a seemingly throwaway comedy, and is anchored by arguably the best performance of Tim Allen's career (I'll happily debate this with any Galaxy Quest fans out there). Were cable tv as prominent now as it was when films like Office Space began showing on an endless loop on Comedy Central, I have no doubt this film would be mentioned in the same breath as that film, but I must cling to my futile hope that someday, somehow, people will finally recognize this film for being as brilliant as it truly is. 

4. Blade Runner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott)


Production Budget: $28 million
Worldwide Box Office: $33 million 

It is virtually impossible for anyone to remember this now, because it's such a respected and mimicked science fiction landmark, but in 1982, critics and audiences alike gave the cold shoulder to Blade Runner. While '82 gave us other milestone sci-fi films such as The Wrath of Khan and Tron, it's the dystopian future created by Ridley Scott that is most often aped and sometimes ripped off wholesale (I'm looking at you, The Fifth Element). The film was far too bleak and depressing for audiences that made E.T. the biggest box office hit of all time that same year, but in the interim, Blade Runner has become the vastly more revered film. There are even debates among the people who love the film as to which version of the film is best, the original theatrical cut or Scott's director's cut released in 1992 (hint, it's the latter). Thankfully the blu-ray release gathers five separate cuts of the film together, so we'll never have to choose again, but this is a film whose legend grows larger with each passing year, and was one of the first films I can think of that was truly ahead of its time in almost every regard. 

3. Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010, dir. Edgar Wright)
Production Budget: $60 millionWorldwide Box Office: $47 million 

After creating two of the best genre spoofs of the decade, Edgar Wright turned his sights to adapting Bryan Lee O'Malley's popular comic/graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim vs The World into a film. The film that he made was a game changer, in ever sense of the word. It was the kind of film that revolutionized what a film based on an already visual medium like comics could achieve, and it was every bit as innovative and amazing as anyone could have hoped. The only problem was, nobody went to see it. In a summer jam packed with mediocre adaptations like Alice in WonderlandIron Man 2 & The Last Airbender, people seemed to have visual effects fatigue, and (much as they did with Pacific Rim this summer) mistook the film for just another style over substance film. The thing is, though, that Scott Pilgrim is infinitely smarter and much more clever than anyone could have imagined, and it's visual style compliments a fantastic script rather than overpowers it. It is the perfect synergy of a great story and great visual effects, and deserved to be mentioned with equal admiration as the other film from that summer about which you could say the same thing, Inception. Unfortunately, for now, the geekier among us must carry the torch for this film alone. 

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994, dir. Frank Darabont)
Production Budget: $25 million
Worldwide Box Office: $28 million

When you look at the user-voted Top 250 films on, one film has regularly and repeatedly topped the list over films like The Godfather, Schindler's List & Seven Samurai... Frank Darabont's 1994 masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption. Released in a year that also gave us Pulp Fiction & Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption was a resounding flop when it was released in October of 1994, and only made any money after it was re-released upon being nominated for 7 Oscars. Based on a short story by Stephen King (from the same collection that gave us Stand by Me & Apt Pupil), the film tells the story of an innocent man's decades long fight to escape from the eponymous prison, as seen through the eyes of another inmate, who becomes his best friend. It's the film that introduced the world to the Morgan Freeman voiceover narration that has become so ubiquitous and spoofed in the twenty years since, and it's also the kind of film that spans generations and can be equally loved by everyone, young and old (you certainly can't say that about Forrest Gump or Pulp Fiction). A film about never losing hope became the epitome of its own message when endless reruns on TBS and the like cemented its place in history and helped it achieve the now legendary status it has achieved. And on top of all that, it's just a damn good film. 

1. The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)

Production Budget: $15 million
Worldwide Box Office: $17 million

No film in the last 15 years has seeped its way into the collective conscious the way Joel & Ethan Coen's 1998 film The Big Lebowski has. Endlessly quoted and referenced, the film has become a cultural landmark in a way very few other films have, but can you think of anyone who actually saw this film in a movie theater in March of 1998? I remember seeing it for the first time when it came out on video and not thinking much of it. It seemed like a throwaway trifle from filmmakers that had just made one of the best films of the 90s with Fargo. But something about Lebowski kept calling me back, and I soon found out I wasn't alone. Now there are Lebowski Fests every year all over the world, midnight screenings in bowling alleys, and even burlesque shows here in Chicago based on the film. Lebowski has become a cultural milestone, and is likely the most revered film from two brothers whose entire filmography is comprised of films worth paying reverence to (Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty being the notable exceptions). It's hard to believe this film took so long to insert itself into the cultural milieu, but something tells me that The Dude would have abided such a path, and I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that.  

[Photos via 123456]

Friday, July 19, 2013

Day 223: The Way, Way Back


"They called me a c, u, next Tuesday... To my face."

In 2011, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash made the leap from reliable comedic bit players to Academy Award winning screenwriters, when they collaborated with Alexander Payne on his film The Descendants. For their follow-up project, Faxon & Rash also step behind the camera for The Way, Way Back, a seemingly by-the-numbers bildungsroman that, from the outside at least, seemed to be a hodgepodge of its precursors. I'm happy to report that this is not the case, and that The Way, Way Back has a lot more going for it than your typical coming of age story...


Duncan (Liam James) is a 14 year old socially awkward introvert who is dragged by his mom Pam (Toni Collette) to the beach home of her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) for the summer. He becomes instantly smitten with the slightly older girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) whose mother (Allison Janney) is navigating single parenthood by drinking herself silly. Pam & Trent spend most of their time getting drunk with Kip (Rob Corddry) & Joan (Amanda Peet) and Trent seems to devote whatever time he's not drinking to belittling Duncan and making him feel inferior, when he's claiming to be doing just the opposite to Pam's face.

A ray of sunshine enters Duncan's life when he has a series of strange encounters with an odd local named Owen (Sam Rockwell). Owen works at a local water park called Water Wizz, and decides to give Duncan a job. There among the misfit adults that act like children (among them Faxon, Rash & Maya Rudolph), Duncan begins to find a place where he's accepted. Things begin to go south at home, however, when Duncan discovers a nasty secret about Trent, and wrestles with whether or not to tell his mother.


First things first, The Way, Way Back does not tread any new ground. These are all well-worn tropes that we've seen in countless other films, but it would be foolish to dismiss them outright. They're so commonplace because they work, but they work especially well here because the world feels very believable. One of my biggest issues with the 2009 Greg Mottola film Adventureland was that it felt like a Hollywood version of this kind of film. The Way, Way Back, on the other hand, has a verisimilitude that was not present in that film. It feels authentic in a way that many other coming of age films do not, and equal credit must be given to the film's script and it's cast.

Different people are likely to connect with different aspects of this film depending upon where they are in their lives or who they were as teenagers. While I felt that the character of Duncan, at least at first, was a bit too put upon, there were little touches that I appreciated, like the way he's told by Trent that everyone must do their share to clean up around the house, and then in two separate scenes, comes home to messes left by the adults.

The film also does not over-sentimentalize Duncan's plight. While it is a bit heavy handed at times, it never slips into the territory of maudlin dreck that a lesser film would have succumbed to in an instant. The handful of scenes that comprise the film's final twenty minutes are fantastically well done, and really left me with an even better overall impression of the film than I had leading up to them. I thought I knew exactly where the film was headed, and it went in another direction entirely, which I ended up liking more than what I thought was going to happen, and the final shot was a wonderful way to end the film.


While Faxon & Rash's script is very good, the life that the actors bring to these characters is truly what elevates the film. I've made my love for Sam Rockwell known before, but his performance here is phenomenal. His ebullience and pure joy radiates through every scene he's in, and he handily walks away with the entire film. There are shades of mischievous characters we're all familiar with, particularly Bill Murray's character from Meatballs, but Rockwell brings an energy and a life all his own. I would love to know what was scripted and what he improvised, because it was a seamless blending of the two.

The rest of the cast is also very good, the two standouts for me being Carell & Janney. Steve Carell has made a career out of playing nice guys, and his first attempt to stretch that was this year's borderline disastrous Burt Wonderstone. Here he plays a genuinely bad person and makes you believe every ounce of it. I've always known that he was a hugely talented comedic actor, but I never knew he was capable of being so convincingly awful. And Allison Janney's character also really hit home for me. I grew up around lots of women similar to her character, and she nails it with just a few key lines and scenes.


While I think that The Way, Way Back is an undeniably excellent film, people will connect with it in different ways. Those of us who grew up awkward and self-conscious will relate to Duncan's plight. Those who can't seem to grow up will relate to Owen. Those who keep making the same mistakes and seem to never learn from them will relate to Pam. It's the kind of film that will hit everyone in a different way, but overall I think that it's just too good of a film for anyone to write off wholesale.

More than anything else, I hope that Sam Rockwell gets major recognition for his work here. This is the kind of quintessential role for him that seems like it was written specifically for his talents, and he shows them off in spades. If you take nothing else away from The Way, Way Back, it's that you can't fight the feeling anymore that Sam Rockwell is one of the best actors working in film today. His joy is contagious, and I can only hope that everyone else catches it in a big way.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Day 222: Turbo


"Your trash talk is needlessly complicated."

Let's face facts, Pixar does not make Pixar movies anymore. I know I've harped on this a lot in my reviews recently, but the fact of the matter is, they haven't focused any of their time or attention on creating new, original works and it's only been to their own detriment. Dreamworks, on the other hand, since 2008's Kung Fu Panda, has been on a bit of a roll and their latest effort, Turbo, is potentially their best film yet, but not for any of the reasons you may be thinking. Read on to find out why...


Theo (Ryan Reynolds) is a garden snail that dreams of life in the fast lane. His days are spent working with his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) at "the plant" (a tomato garden), but his nights are consumed with dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500. After causing an accident which partially destroys the plant, Theo mopes his way out to the 101 Freeway, and through a convoluted series of events, ends up in the nitrous oxide tank of a supercharged car. His time in the tank provides him with super speed, and a number of other "super powers" that make him a one of a kind snail.

Theo & Chet are captured by jovial taco chef Tito (Michael Pena) & his brother Angelo (Luis Guzman) and entered into the underground world of snail racing. When Theo shows off his skills to the other snails, he re-dubs himself Turbo, and becomes determined to enter the Indy 500 for himself. Thankfully Tito is a big dreamer as well, and recognizes the snail's dreams and abilities, and ropes everyone around him into pursuing their dreams. Turbo's path also puts him on a collision course with both destiny and his racing idol Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), that could potentially end in disaster for the small snail with big dreams.


The first thing you're going to notice about Turbo is that it's plot is incredibly similar to Pixar's 2007 masterpiece Ratatouille. In fact, on the way out of the theater, my oldest daughter Clementine remarked that they're "basically the same movie." And while that is true, it doesn't work to the film's detriment. The formula is tried and true (underdog with big dreams gets their shot to compete in the big show thanks to a down on his luck dreamer), but it works and why try and fix what's not broken? I wouldn't go so far as to say the film rips off Ratatouille (though Tito referring to Turbo as "little amigo" comes dangerously close), but Turbo's heart is in the right place.

There are tons of little touches that make the film such a delight for kids and adults. The kids will love the antics of the other snails and the humor that arises from the sibling rivalry between Chet & Theo and the adults will love the little touches like Turbo's checkered flags on his shell being made out of scraps of a crossword puzzle. The film's animation style has photorealistic touches like wonderfully rendered birds & race cars, but it maintains a safe, colorful style that keeps things safe for kids of all ages.


The voice cast is fantastic, all the way across the board. Reynolds is an actor that runs hot and cold with me, but he's in top form here and gives Turbo an undying optimism that makes him so easy to root for. Giamatti is likewise operating in his wheelhouse as a curmudgeon, and his character arc is all the better because he's such a talented voice actor. The assorted snails, particularly those voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Rudolph & Snoop Dogg are equally enjoyable, and the kids will just delight in their rapport with one another, and the humans, particularly those voiced by Pena, Guzman, Hader, and Richard Jenkins will give the adults in the audience some humor they will love as well.

My one, glaring issue with the film is the small Asian female character that the filmmakers decided needed to be voiced by Ken Jeong. Jeong is an actor whose schtick has worn away to nothing with me, and I can barely tolerate his appearance in films these days. Even Judd Apatow, the guy who "discovered" him has more or less purged his films of Jeong. His work with MIchael Bay has only amped up these ridiculous caricatures he insists on bringing to every film, and having him voice a female character in this film was, perhaps, the final insult for me. I don't mean to harp on this since most of the kids going to see this film will care less, but filmmakers really need to focus their efforts on finding someone else or, better yet, multiple someones to take some of these roles from him.


I don't want that to tarnish the overall film though, as Turbo is an incredibly winning, adorable and ultimately heartwarming film that everyone will love. It doesn't break any new ground, but it sticks firmly to familiar beats that you will delight in seeing played out again, and I defy you not to get pumped up when "Eye of the Tiger" kicks in late in the third act.

Turbo is the kind of film that everyone can enjoy equally and that's so rare in children's entertainment these days. It's a fantastic film, and even if you don't have children, I defy you not to be taken by it, and I can almost guarantee it will be nominated for, if not win, the Best Animated Feature Oscar come Academy Awards time. Do yourself a favor, stop reading, and go see Turbo.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, July 12, 2013

Day 221: Pacific Rim

"Hey kid... Don't get cocky."

I have to admit, heading into the theater to see Guillermo DelToro's first film in five years, Pacific Rim, I was a bit apprehensive. This entire summer has been all about upping the ante: more destruction, more visual effects, and more nonsense than any summer I can remember in a long time. My expectations were a bit low by default, but I trust DelToro as a director, even though he sadly directs so infrequently these days. I'm thrilled beyond measure to tell you that Pacific Rim is not only the best summer movie imaginable, it's probably the best big budget event film I've seen in several years. 

Dispensing with the usual, boring origin film nonsense, Pacific Rim does more in its first twenty minutes than most tentpole films do in an entire film. We learn through an opening montage/voiceover that one day in the very near future, giant sea creatures known as the Kaiju mysteriously appeared and began destroying coastal cities all over the globe. World leaders agreed to put aside their differences and pool their resources to create the Jaeger program, a militarily run program where two pilots join forces via a mind-melding program called "drifting" and pilot giant mechanized robots to combat the Kaiju. 

After a series of major defeats, the world military puts the Jaeger program on permanent hiatus to pursue building giant walls around coastal cities. The breach of a wall in Sydney causes Marshall (Idris Elba) the military leader in charge of the Jaegers to turn to disillusioned former Jaeger pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) in hopes of secretly restarting the program with whatever available Jaegers and pilots are left. Raleigh is damaged goods however, having suffered the loss of his brother when they were Jaeger pilots together, but a new partner Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) and a pair of crazy scientists (Charlie Day & Burn Gorman) may hold the key to helping him save the world. 

The most important thing you need to know about Pacific Rim is that it is a genre flick of the highest order. It knows very firmly what the tropes of the genre are, and plays into them wonderfully, paying homage without ever succumbing to the more ridiculous traps that could easily bury a film like this. The film is smarter than it has any right to be, and is truly to the action genre what Cabin in the Woods was to the horror genre. From the opening of the film, to the introduction of every major character, everyone speaks the prototypical genre catchphrases and displays the appropriate character behaviors, but it all works in the service of a film that's infinitely more clever than I could have ever hoped it could be.

There's the Maverick & Iceman style rivalry between Raleigh and hotshot pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), the overly-protective father/daughter dynamic, the Louis Tully-esque comic relief of Day & Gorman, and of course, the robots fighting monsters action you paid your money to see. I have to give DelToro and his co-writer Travis Beacham all the credit in the world for crafting great characters with actual arcs. We very clearly know the motivations of all the characters, so when they strap into these giant robots and fight the monsters, we actually give a shit about what's happening. 

Compare this to Michael Bay's god awful, noisy claptrap bullshit Transformers movies, and it's easy to see why they failed so fundamentally as films. The film is shot in such a way that you can follow the action sequences easily without any confusion as to what's happening. Other films in this genre of late have been so concerned with the technical aspects of the effects that the characters on screen became thoroughly irrelevant, and this film bucks that trend at every possible turn. There's genuine emotion behind this film that comes from characters you care about. 

The cast is top notch, front to back. Hunnam is fantastic as the lead character, displaying three full dimensions and a revenge backstory that makes him an easy hero to root for. Elba is similarly fantastic in his role, adding the proper amount of gravitas and emotional connection to his character. Kikuchi, who was so good in Babel, is also excellent, along with all of the supporting characters from Kazinsky to Clifton Collins, Jr and Max Martini as Hansen's father Herc. 

The comic relief trio of Day, Gorman and Ron Perlman as black market dealer Hannibal Chau (named after his favorite world conqueror and his favorite Szechwan place in Brooklyn) is also wonderful. They go for broke and become the kind of over the top characters that can only work in a film like this, but when they work, they work beautifully. The entire second act climax, set in Hong Kong, is a masterwork of editing, writing, acting & effects. It's the best sequence in the entire film and hits every beat you want it to and then some. 

Unfortunately, like every truly great genre picture, this one will likely have a hard time finding an audience. The fanboys who will really get off on it are more than likely going to turn their noses up thinking that this is just more effects nonsense, but those kinds of fanboys are the worst, and worse yet, almost always wrong. I hate to constantly draw the comparisons to Transformers, but this is such a vastly superior film that I can only hope finds the size of audience that those thorough mediocrities did. 

Pacific Rim isn't just the best movie I've seen all year long, it is one I cannot wait to see again. See it in 3D and better yet, IMAX if possible. Too many filmmakers of late have relied on anamorphic widescreen to shoot their films, and it was wonderful to see a film that didn't; DelToro & cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown, Pan's Labyrinth) used the 1.85:1 aspect ratio so brilliantly. The film is a marvel of genre filmmaking and I truly and sincerely hope it finds the audience it deserves. I am over the moon for this film, and I suspect that others will be as well. If grading solely on achieving what it set out to do, I don't say this often, but this is a perfect film.

GO Rating: 5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Day 220: The Hangover Part III

"I'm a 44 slim, why don't you bring me down a couple of options."

The Hangover was a funny enough movie when it was released in the Summer of 2009. It certainly wasn't a groundbreaking film by any stretch of the imagination and it finally brought long overdue stardom to Zach Galifianakis, something I couldn't have been more pleased about, but it was a self contained, stand-alone comedy. However, because it was such a huge hit, they decided to build a franchise around it, and that's when things went south in a hurry. 

2011's The Hangover Part II was a nightmare of a movie, essentially recreating the plot of the first film in an exotic locale. When trailers began showing up for The Hangover Part III, it seemed like they'd finally broken the mold and tried to do something different, but would it work? Would anyone show up? Does anyone even care anymore? Read on to find out...

The Hangover Part III opens with a large prison break that reintroduces us to a minor character from the first film, Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) and you very quickly realize that he's now going to be the focus of the third film. Even though "The Wolfpack" is going to be the vessel by which the story is told, this film is squarely focused on Chow, and that's likely where things went wrong with this film. As for The Wolfpack, they're having issues with Alan (Galifianakis) whose behavior has gotten out of control, and they want to send him to a rehab facility (not sure what rehab facility is going to cure psychopathic behavior, but hey, we've got to get these guys together right?)

En route to the rehab, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Justin Bartha) and Alan are run off the road by a Vegas drug kingpin named Marshall (John Goodman). In one of the most convoluted attempts to link this film to the first, we find out that Marshall was robbed by Chow and since the only person who's remained in contact with Chow is Alan, Marshall decides to kidnap Doug and hold him for ransom until The Wolfpack can deliver Chow to him. The trio then sets off on a race against time to find Chow and rescue their plot device, I mean friend, Doug. 

First things first, The Hangover Part III has a lot of chuckles and amusing bits, but the most immediate thing that struck me about it is that it is not a comedy. It's got a lot of funny asides and clear improvisations added in to bring some humor to the proceedings, but taken at face value, there's nothing remotely comedic about any of these premises. That is, frankly, a really odd way to wrap up a "trilogy" that started as a zany, over the top comedy. The script felt repurposed from something else, which happens a lot in Hollywood, and because it had a tangential connection to the "three guys hunting for clues" base plot of these films, they rewrote it as a Hangover film. 

It's also not particularly well made. Todd Phillips has not grown as a director, I think as a direct result of having made nothing but these types of movies for the last four years, and as a result, the film feels much more like a contractual obligation than a film. There's nothing remarkable about the film, and nary a shred of effort put into making the film itself. The whole thing feels coldly impersonal. That's fine. That can work, but the first film was such a manic and chaotic delight, and this feels like an aging director going through the motions with nothing even remotely approaching the inspired casino scene in the first film set to Wolfmother's "Joker & The Thief."

Unfortunately it's not just Phillips phoning it in. Ed Helms looks like he wants to be anywhere else on planet Earth than on the set of this film. Granted he's not given much to do, but he lets it show in every scene. Now, I may be blinded by the goodwill he built up with me from Silver Linings Playbook, but Bradley Cooper actually seems more engaged than he did previously in this series, and he finally takes the reigns as the de facto leader of this group. His work here is much better than it has any right to be. 

Galifianakis gets most of the best lines and sight gags, and his malicious streak is the only thing tying this film to its predecessors. He's always a delight to watch on screen, but I'm happy he can now move on from this role and do something else. Ken Jeong is a nightmare to watch as Chow. He overacts with reckless abandon and most of his hijinks were played out halfway through the second film, but that doesn't stop him from doing everything in his power to steal the show. I'm also sorry to report that Melissa McCarthy, Jeffrey Tambor & John Goodman are all fairly wasted in glorified cameos, given nothing to do other than hint at more well rounded characters this film just didn't have time for.

I'm being a tad harsh on The Hangover Part III. It is infinitely better than Part II, and I likely would have enjoyed it more had this plot been used for Part II instead of Part III. But it's clear that many of the actors, and certainly the director, have grown weary of making these films and are ready to move on to something else now. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon how you look at it, audiences have mostly moved on as well, so there likely won't be another Hangover film. Let's hope that they don't squander this opportunity to finally move on, and they all follow this up with something infinitely better. 

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, July 8, 2013

Top 5: Doomed Cinematic Couples


As long as writers have written about love, they've also written about the dissolution and often tragic end of love. Audiences love the notion of a love so strong, it's just doomed to end badly. Heck, Leonardo DiCaprio has seemingly made a career out of this brand of cinematic love (TitanicThe Great Gatsby, Romeo + Juliet, Revolutionary Road). While there are tons of classic love stories doomed to end badly (Casablanca being the most notable & perhaps my personal favorite), today I'm looking at some more recent examples (in the last 40 years or so) of couples that made us believe in the power of love again, only to crush our spirits in the end. Caution, spoilers ahead, and you can click on the titles to take you to my review, except #4 which I haven't reviewed yet...

5. Harold & Maude, Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)image

The quirky comedy that was the inspiration for countless quirky comedies to follow, Harold and Maude tells the story of suicidal young Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) and his kindred spirit, an 80 year-old rabble rouser named Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude helps Harold come out of his shell and in turn, Harold provides a welcome companion to a woman in the twilight of her life, all set to the music of Cat Stevens. At film's end, Harold works up the nerve to go and propose marriage to Maude, only to discover that she's taken a cocktail of pills to commit suicide. He spends her final minutes by her side, and then seems to be headed for one last suicide attempt to join Maude, but aborts at the last minute and dances on a mountainside, playing his banjo. It's a bittersweet ending to one of the sweetest love stories ever put on film for even though Harold is alone, he will live to love again.

4. Ennis & Jack, Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee)image

One of the more controversial films of the last ten years, Brokeback Mountain actually turned out to be one of the more conventional love stories ever made. Ennis (Heath Ledger) & Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) spend a summer in their early 20s herding cattle on the side of the titular mountain, and discover a love they never knew they were capable of. Though both would go on to "normal" relationships with women (Michelle Williams & Anne Hathaway respectively), they would reunite annually to resume their doomed love affair. On their last week together, Ennis pushes Jack away, saying that they can never be together, and that proves true as soon after that, Jack is murdered. The film ends with Ennis still carrying the torch for his one true love, and Heath Ledger's scene at Jack's home where he finds the shirt Jack was wearing when they first met is one of the purest and most heart-wrenching depictions of love lost ever put on film.

3. Dean & Cindy, Blue Valentine (2010, dir. Derek Cianfrance)image

One of the most innovative things about director Derek Cianfrance's film Blue Valentine is that it simultaneously shows us Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) falling in and out of love. The film is an interwoven tapestry of scenes from the beginning and end of their relationship, and it makes their hopeless love affair all the more tragic. Climaxing in a scene that intercuts their marriage with their final fight before they break-up for good, the film is brutally honest about love in an achingly real way. It brilliantly builds your love for these characters just in time for you to realize that there's no way they're ever going to work things out, and that's part of the film's genius. It's designed specifically to break your heart.

2. Alvy & Annie, Annie Hall (1977, dir. Woody Allen)image

Woody Allen's 1977 Best Picture winner, Annie Hall, opens with Alvy Singer (Allen) telling us that his relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton) is over. That would seem to make it borderline impossible to root for their relationship to work, but as the film breezes by, we fall in love with both characters and hope against hope that they'll work things out in the end. That they don't is actually testament to how well realized the characters are, because ultimately, we realize that they're actually better people apart than they were together. It doesn't make it any easier to bear watching Alvy trying desperately to recreate some of his favorite moments from his relationship with Annie with other women, but it makes it feel all the more real. Annie Hall is a purely cinematic invention that traffics in very real, honest emotions.

1. Joel & Clementine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, dir. Michel Gondry)

It's virtually impossible for me to be objective about a film whose main female character I named my first born daughter after, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my favorite love story ever put on film. Joel (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine (Kate Winslet) on a trip to Montauk, NY one Valentine's Day. After a brief, pre-titles courtship, we're re-introduced to Joel, about to go through a procedure to have Clementine erased from his memory. The sheer brilliance of the film is that they work in reverse chronological order, so we see the bad stuff about their relationship first, but when it gets to the good stuff, Joel suddenly decides he no longer wants his memories of her erased and attempts to hide her in memories in which she doesn't belong. Watching these two characters attempt to cling to the idealized versions of one another is a thing of true beauty, and though the film ends on a somewhat optimistic note, we know that they're ultimately doomed to repeat the same mistakes since they took pains to erase any potential lessons learned. It's disheartening, pessimistic, and yet somehow beautiful and hopeful all at the same time. Even if they are condemned to repeat their relationship over and over again until the end of their lives, in the end, they'll still be able to love one another all over again, which is a true testament to the power of love.

[Photos via 123456]

Day 219: Blue Valentine

"How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?"

Admittedly, I may not be in the best frame of my mind to be revisiting a film like Blue Valentine, but it's the kind of movie that calls to you, particularly on those dark nights of the soul. Co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance & stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams have crafted the most honest, gut wrenching film about the dissolution of love ever made. It's not an easy movie to watch, but it's impossible to forget. The synergy of the script, the direction, the editing and especially the performances makes it a film that, as depressing as it is, I never tire of revisiting. 

Blue Valentine tells the story of Dean (Gosling) & Cindy (Williams), a couple that's been together for several years, and can no longer see the best in one another as they used to. The film is told with two straight linear narratives that tell the story of the beginning of their relationship as well as the end of it, and the way they're interwoven is brilliantly done. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the editing is on a par with The Godfather Part II for knowing how and when to cut from one timeline to the next. It's masterfully done in that just as you begin to hate the characters for who they've become, they're immediately endeared to you by showing how idealistic they used to be.

Both actors rise admirably to the material. Gosling in particular has floundered of late by building this wall of stoicism which he hides behind in an attempt to remain enigmatic, but his work here is fantastically well observed and honest. The scene when he confronts Cindy at work, after she flees the hotel room where they foolishly attempt to reignite the flame in their marriage, is potentially the best work of his career. Everything from his wardrobe (wildlife sweatshirts) to his body language is incredibly well done, and I want to see more of this Ryan Gosling in the future.

Williams is his perfect counterpoint in every regard. Watching her vacillate from guarded young woman to a working professional trying to keep whatever shred of dignity she has left is amazing. The early scenes with her grandmother, in particular the one in which her father explodes at her mother during dinner, are heartbreaking and the work of an actress firmly in command of her emotions on screen. 

They walk an incredible tightrope because you root for them so much in their early relationship, but when you know they're doomed, it makes it even harder to watch those early scenes. The tenuousness of love is so present at all times, and while the film is ultimately bleakly pessimistic in regard to love, it still shows how pure and true love can be when it first starts. The script by Cianfrance, Joey Curtis & Cami Delavigny is so well written & structured, and Cianfrance's direction is its equal in every way. 

Blue Valentine has no qualms with ripping your heart out and showing it to you just before you die, but I wouldn't want it any other way. Retrospectively, it makes this year's The Place Beyond the Pines even more of a disappointment because it seems like a giant step backward for both its director & star. I know they will go on to do better things, but it's hard to believe that they'll ever make another film this good again. Blue Valentine is not for everyone, but everyone that watches it will be affected by it, and that's the mark of a truly great film. 

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Day 218: Mama

"Look Lilly, a cherry."

Though his work as a director is sadly sporadic, Guillermo DelToro has a talent for finding and producing films by young directors with an eye for creepy visuals. Two of his more notable "discoveries" are Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) & Vincenzo Natali (Splice) and you can now add a third to that list, Andres Muschietti, whose debut feature was 2013's Mama. While it is a film that has myriad issues that one could nitpick & cause the film to suffer a death by a thousand cuts, it is an undeniable stylistic & atmospheric triumph that I would adamantly recommend to any horror fans.

The film opens with one of the creepier prologues I've seen recently with a deranged businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) absconding with his three year old & infant daughters after having murdered their mother. When his car careens off the road, he finds an abandoned cabin, and just as he is about to murder the girls as well, a spirit of some kind drags him out of the cabin and kills him instead. Fast forward five years later, the girls' uncle Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) is married to Annabel (Jessica Chastain), and they seem content to be living a childless existence.

When the girls are discovered still alive in the abandoned cabin, Lucas convinces Annabel that they should adopt the girls and give them an attempt at a normal life. The girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) & Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are borderline feral having somehow survived alone in the woods, yet they come to live with Lucas & Annabel on the condition that they see a therapist (Daniel Kash). When strange things begin to happen in their home, Annabel becomes convinced that the spirit, which killed their father and kept them safe for the last five years, has moved with the girls into their home as well.

First things first, the film bears all the hallmarks of a director making his feature debut with a genre picture (flashy editing, lots of dolly shots & rack focus, interesting composition, etc) but it has an undeniable assurance to it that most debut features do not. The highest compliment I can pay is that it feels like the work of someone that's made several films already. The sound editing is fantastic, the character actors that populate the smaller roles are appropriately bizarre & creepy, and the whole film feels very well planned, thought out & executed.

Some of the shots are downright ingenious, such as one where we see Lilly playing tug of war with someone just out of shot in her room. The way the shot is framed, we also see both Victoria & Annabel walk through the shot, so we're made aware that there's clearly no one else she could possibly be playing with in her room. It's the kind of thing that does a lot without doing much at all, and I was impressed by how many of the scenes did so much with very very little.

At the risk of entering spoiler territory, I won't go into what my specific issues were with the entire third act, but the film comes precipitously close to jumping the shark in the last twenty minutes or so. I was ultimately pleased with the conclusion, despite an almost preposterous deus ex machina reason for a character coming to the rescue, but I'm willing to overlook the unbelievable hurdles they jumped to get to what I thought was a very good ending.

Jessica Chastain seemed back in 2011 that she was an actress to watch, and her work here does nothing to cause any loss of faith in that assumption. Her work here as a woman that is clearly alone in not wanting to be a mother is very good, and she elevates the prototypical female horror lead into a fully three-dimensional woman. Coster-Waldau is good as well, though his role is far less substantial than Chastain's, but his work, particularly in the prologue, is very good. Both girls, including the very young actress that plays Victoria in the prologue, are also outstanding, and while I truly worry about what they may have been exposed to on the set of a film like this, I trust this filmmaker enough to have the wherewithal to keep most of the horrors hidden from them.

Overall, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Mama. While it's certainly not a film I think I'll revisit any time soon, it most assuredly put me on board for whatever Muschietti does as a director in the future. Much like Bayona's second film, The Impossible, showed what a truly talented director he was, so too do I think that Muschietti's next film will further confirm that he is a true talent behind the camera. Horror fans should most definitely seek out Mama, and in particular, not be scared off by its PG-13 rating. The film wisely keeps most of the nasty stuff confined to the audiences' imaginations, and that makes it a much better film as a result.

[Photos via Box Office Mojo]